REVUELTAS: Homenaje a Garcia Lorca. Sensemayá  Janitzio. La Noche de los Mayas. CHAVEZ: Toccata.  MONCAYO: Bosques.

Mexico City Philharmonic Orchestra, Luis Herrera de la Fuente/cond.
Clasicos Mexicanos/Spartacus 21005  [M]  [DDD]  TT: 71:22


This is one of several CDs in a "Mexican Classics" series being merchandised stupidly, verging on suicidally. Surely Empire Music Corporation, the North American distributor, should have advised Spartacus Discos, S.A., that comparative rarities by composers who are not quite household names north of the border, need program notes. Preferably in English. Yet this intriguing collection, recorded October 1-6, 1993, with Mexico's Grand Old Man of the Podium leading one of his nation's better orchestras, has only the names of composers (no dates), the titles of their works, and wrong timings. Inside a single fold brochure there is nothing, niente, just white space. Even Herrera de la Fuente’s first name is missing unless one reads the CD label.

Having said that, this collection is affectionately conducted, idiomatically played (which is not say world-class), studio-recorded with very little reverb, and includes three pieces currently neglected elsewhere. The prize is Janitzio, last of Silvestre Revueltas' seven vivid, superbly scored symphonic poems celebrating Mexican locales. He wrote it in 1936, after resigning as assistant conductor of Carlos Chavez's Orquesta Nacional, before going to Spain for two years, where his sympathies lay with the Loyalists. Born in 1899, he died of pneumonia and alcoholism in 1940, two months before his 41st birthday. Chavez may have had the greater reputation, but for some of us Revueltas remains the finest composer Mexico has yet produced.

This disk also contains a newer Herrera de la Fuente performance of Revueltas' best-known piece, Sensemayá  of 1938, subtitled "Chant for the Killing of a Snake" with Afro-Aztec implications. This one is just two seconds faster than his Xalapa recording on OM/Pickwick (see the Batiz collection on Naxos), but not as expertly played. It isn't subpar, but not top-of-the-line.

There's something engaging about the orchestra's raw, rowdy playing of Janitzio (which doesn't use actual folk-melodies; Revueltas scorned them, saying he preferred to invent his own). The same applies to the four-movement suite that JosÈ Limontour fashioned posthumously from his 1938 music for Night of the Mayas, one of seven films Revueltas scored between 1935 and 1940. It has become a flavor-of-the-month in this centennial celebration year of the composer's birth, although the current recording, plus an earlier one by Herrera de la Fuente with the Xalapa orchestra (on BMG/Catalyst), and a third one by Fernando Lozano on Forlane, were made in 1993, 1980, and 1982, respectively. This one with the Mexico City Philharmonic, however, is the best-played piece on Spartacus' CD.

The program opens with the three-movement Homage to Lorca, which Eduardo Mata recorded back in 1976 in London (also on Catalyst), and Jesus Lopez-Cobos recently gave us on Telarc in sumptuous sound with the Cincinnati Symphony (although the featured work is Falla's Three-Cornered Hat). Herrera de la Fuente yields to neither, despite an orchestra of lesser caliber.

The Chavez Toccata for Orchestra is a brief, neo-folksy piece that belies its creation as late as 1947, not to be confused with the contemporaneous Toccata for Percussion Instruments that enjoyed a vogue in the '50s and early '‘60s (although today it sounds almost feebly simplistic). This one is played respectfully.

Bosques (or "Forests") by Juan Pablo Moncayo is a curious mixture of native-inspired music and Aaron Copland, at times almost two pieces. The composer was another short-lived Mexican (1912-58), best known for Huapango, although he was founder of Mexico's Group of Four, which made a noise briefly around mid-century before it evanesced. If you want to know more, you'll have to find a library with books about Latin-American composers, most of them untranslated. But this disk has its pleasures, nonetheless, and Night of the Mayas is outstanding.

R.D. (Oct. 2000)